(Another in a series of posts circling back on the 2012 season and some of our preseason themes.)
Kyle Rudolph's turn as the Pro Bowl MVP served as a reminder that the Minnesota Vikings have an exceptional tight end whose 2012 season went largely unnoticed. There are a couple of reasons for that oversight, most notably the Vikings' relatively punchless passing offense.
Rudolph finished the season with 53 receptions for 493 yards, exactly 40 catches and 437 yards fewer than the tight end he replaced on the Pro Bowl roster, Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons. In fact, 14 NFL tight ends caught more passes and 24 had more yards than Rudolph this season.
Within the context of the Vikings' offense, however, you could make an argument that Rudolph wasn't too far off in production from the NFL's most statistically-proficient tight ends. Remember, the Vikings were one of two NFL teams that finished the season with fewer than 3,000 passing yards. In an offense that came to center around tailback Adrian Peterson, Rudolph caught 50 percent of its touchdown passes (nine of 18), the highest percentage among NFL players this season. He also pulled in 17.7 percent of their receptions for 16.8 percent of their yards.
For comparison's sake, consider that Gonzalez caught 20 percent of the Falcons' completions for 19.7 percent of their yards.
Rudolph ranked a clear second to receiver Percy Harvin in the Vikings' offense during the first nine weeks of the season, but Harvin's season-ending ankle injury left Rudolph as quarterback Christian Ponder's most-targeted player in the passing game. Many of Ponder's passes to Harvin were close to the line of scrimmage, but Ponder's inconsistent accuracy in the mid- and long-range passing game also had an impact on Rudolph's season.
In all, Ponder targeted Rudolph on 90 passes this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Rudolph's 53 receptions represented a catch percentage of only 58.9, worse than all but one qualified tight end in the NFL. But whose fault were those 37 incompletions? ESPN Stats & Information credited Rudolph for three drops. Remember, Rudolph is 6-foot-6, has 34-inch arms and hands that measure 10 3/4 inches. That wingspan is bigger than many NFL left tackles, and by definition Rudolph should be able to get to a high percentage of catchable balls thrown his way.
If he only dropped three of the 37, what does that say about the other 34? To me, it's reasonable to blame Ponder's accuracy issues for many of them.
It's not fair to say that Rudolph's five-catch, 122-yard performance in the Pro Bowl is indicative of what he can do with a more consistent quarterback. Pro Bowl statistics are like preseason numbers. They're pretty much meaningless out of context. But not all 53-catch, 493-yard seasons are alike, and a closer look at Rudolph's suggests the Vikings have a tight end with the skills to be considered among the NFL's best.
Earlier: Rudolph generated plenty of buzz during our CampTour'12.